As most of my readers know, my quirky taste in music runs along the lines of progressive rock, a genre made popular in the 1970s as part of a "mostly British attempt to elevate rock music to new levels of artistic credibility” (allmusic).
What I love about Prog Rock is both the musicianship (artists are constantly pushing rock's technical and compositional boundaries) and how the genre joins together the standard song structure of rock/popular music (verse-chorus-verse) with the influence of classical music’s complexity of composition (resulting in longer songs, thematic albums with concepts or storylines, and explorations of melodies that the standard structure limits).
With the rise of Punk and Disco in the late ‘70s, Prog lost its selling power (though established bands like Yes, Genesis, Rush, and Pink Floyd were able to continue). In the ‘80s, there was a revival of the genre with bands like Asia, Marillion, UK, IQ, and Pendragon (with music that is technically called “Neo-Prog”). But MTV had hit it big, and Pop was all the rage (along with Hair Bands!) and as The Buggles sang, “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
In the ‘90s, a real revival of Prog occurred, one that even Grunge could not choke out. This “Third Wave,” was spearheaded by Sweden's The Flower Kings, the UK's Porcupine Tree, the Netherland’s Arjen Anthony Lucassen with his project “Ayreon,” and from the United States, Dream Theater, Spock's Beard, Echolyn, and Proto-Kaw,(a reincarnation of an early lineup of Kansas).
20. Spooning Out the Sea, by Orphan Project, 2009
Orphan Project offers a crisp sounding American prog sound (in the vein of Kansas and Spock’s Beard) with deep lyrics of hope and reliance upon the grace of God.
Lyricist and singer Shane Lankford has a lot to say: on OP’s first album he shared how his being an adopted orphan also led to his discovery and embrace of being adopted into God’s family. On this, OP’s second album, he further explores spiritual issues with great, engaging progressive music.
19. Second Life Syndrome, by Riverside, 2005
Riverside is a Polish band that has found fame in that part of the world (they really are “Big in Europe!”). Those of us who love progressive rock that is on the more metal side, but with complex changes in mood and a lot of variety with mellow, Pink Floyd-like sections along with harder Porcupine Tree-like sections, will really enjoy this album. Riverside has toured with both Marillion and Dream Theater, which gives you an indication to both of the quality of their musicianship and the unique style of their music.
18. The Resistance, by Muse, 2009
Muse is not strictly a Prog Rock band, but they certainly have a progressive approach to their music, constantly experimenting to create unique atmospheres with piano and strings, yet never afraid to go bombastic with aggressive guitars and huge anthem choruses. They make pompous and grandiose music cool again (the first time we can say that since the heyday of Emerson, Lake and Palmer!).
17. Half Way Home, by DeeExpus, 2008
Inspired by the music of Porcupine Tree (as evidenced by the song “PTTee",” one of the finest songs you’ll ever hear), songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Andy Ditchfield got together with vocalist Tony Wright to create this amazing album. After the album was created by the incredibly talented Ditchfield, they recruited a band to play on tour. In the words of the band's own publicity "their sound is as eclectic as their influences, drawn from years of listening to such groups and artists as Joe Jackson, Iron Maiden, It Bites, Crash Test Dummies, Rush, Nik Kershaw, Marillion and recently - Porcupine Tree and Spock's Beard". DeeExpus is good. Really good. And that’s not just my opinion, they won Classic Rock Society's “Best New Band” Award.
16. Octavarium, by Dream Theater, 2005
Dream Theater has long been established as the kings of Progressive Metal. I remember the first time my friend Matt took me to a DT concert – I was just amazed at what I was watching. These guys are the most technically amazing musicians I’ve ever seen. It’s downright frightening to think how good each one of them are on their instruments. Dream Theater is a mix of Metal (think Metallica, Queensryche, and Rush) with Progressive (think Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes). Much of DT’s music features extremely complex and fast metal, with sophisticated time signature changes thoughout, which makes for difficult listening to the uninitiated. But with Octavarium, the band focused more on actual songwriting, creating a much more accessible album, with songs that sound like Muse (“Never Enough”) or even U2 (“I Walk Beside You”). But for the diehard Proggers, there is the magnificent 24 minute, eight-parter, “Octavarium”.
15. Deadwing, by Porcupine Tree, 2005 Steven Wilson started Porcupine Tree in the ‘90s with spacey experimental psychedelia reminiscent of Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream. But Wilson’s music has evolved into making Porcupine Tree the band on the leading edge of modern Progressive Rock, defying genres by blending together numerous ambient, metal and avant-garde styles. Wilson creates and produces soundscapes that are the best in the business. Deadwing is the band’s eighth studio album. The material here varies from shorter airplay-friendly songs like “Shallow” to the 10-minute proggy masterpiece “Arriving Somewhere But Not Here.”
14. Wintercoast, by Touchstone, 2009 This album won the top honor in my best albums that I discovered last year. Touchstone’s music is an awesome juxtaposition of symphonic progressive melodies and soundscapes featuring the angelic, sweet vocals of Kim Seviour with the aggression of guitars and drums that edge toward metal and the masculine vocals of keyboardist and composer Rob Cottingham. This creates a musical journey with twists and turns – sweet melodies followed by heavy rocking, all in the same song. What a fantastic album, for fans of Lacuna Coil and Within Temptation, but also for those who love Genesis, Yes, and Spock’s Beard.
13. Viva La Vida, Or Death and All His Friends, by Coldplay, 2008
Okay, I know that Coldplay are not a Progressive Rock band. But they represent the same kind of mentality toward their music that a good Prog band has: lush atmosphere, a theme that unites the album into a cohesive whole, and experimental explorations of melodies beyond the standard music structure of pop music. How the album opens with an instrumental (“Life in Technicolor”) that blends into an atmospheric piece (“Cemeteries of London”) tells you this is no ordinary pop album. “42,” “Lovers in Japan/Reign of Love,” and “Death and All His Friends” are examples of Proggy song composition – a willingness to switch gears midsong to create a more powerful experience. There are a number of great-selling bands that edge toward prog: the aforementioned Muse and Radiohead are examples, along with Metallica and Mastodon in the Metal genre.
12. Bridge Across Forever, by Transatlantic, 2001
When Americans Neal Morse (keyboards, vocals) of Spock’s Beard and Mike Portnoy (drums) of Dream Theater dreamed of starting a supergroup, they imagined working with some Prog Rock masters from overseas. They recruited Roine Stolt (guitars, vocals) whose band The Flower Kings moved the Yes sound into the 21st Century, and Pete Trewavas (bass) from Marillion, a leader in the new wave of bands in the Genesis sound lineage. Their debut album, SMPTe (2000) was critically applauded. But the second album really shines, as the band became more cohesive and the “epic” songs lived up to the term. Both “Duel with the Devil” and “Stranger in Your Soul” clock in at over 26 minutes, the latter is a masterpiece from the mind and heart of Neal Morse.
11. Addicted, by Devin Townsend Project, 2009
Townsend is the founder of “Extreme Metal / Thrash Metal / Death Metal” band, Strapping Young Lad. I am not a fan of this genre of music, and have little interest in SYL. I find it all so loud and obnoxious. But with his new “The Devin Townsend Project,” he is turning over a new leaf. “I wanted to make a record that was heavy, without being dark or depressing. When I got into metal it was for the energy behind it, but somewhere along the way that energy started getting really negative.” With Addicted, Townsend offers an excellent hard prog rock album, with melody and precision. But the spotlight on this album is the vocals of Anneke van Giesbergen (ex-The Gathering, Ayreon). Her beautiful and haunting voice compliments Townsend’s exceptional vocals perfectly. This album must be heard on top-of-the-line headphones or a high-end home sound system to get the fullness of the production value. Townsend’s ability to add layers upon layers of sounds without muddying the sound is an amazing feat.
10. Free, by OSI, 2006
OSI’s first album, “Office of Strategic Influence” (2003) and their third album, “Blood” (2009) both could have made this list. For some reason, I’ve chosen their second album to represent this impressive body of work. Fans of Dream Theater were put off by OSI’s first album, expecting a DT-like experience, since Kevin Moore was previously the keyboardist with Dream Theater, and the drummer was Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater’s drummer). But this music is very different, being a whole new hybrid of post-metal and electronica. The band is actually led by Moore and Jim Matheos (Fate’s Warning), and they have come up with a new and experimental sound that is unlike anything else out there. To compare OSI with Dream Theater is like comparing apples to oranges.
9. The Whirlwind, by Transatlantic, 2009
After a prolonged time since their last getting together when they made “Bridge Across Forever” in 2001 (see #12 above), Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy, Pete Trewavas, and Roine Stolt gave us the incredible gift of “The Whirlwind.” This is an epic story both musically and lyrically, a magnum opus with eschatological undertones but with hope in the midst of suffering. Transatlantic has placed themselves in the upper echelon of the great rock supergroups of all time. How good are they? Good enough for me to drive eight hours to Philadelphia to see them live in concert back in April. What a show! After they played this entire album through, they took a break for intermission and then played songs from their first two albums. Before leaving the stage for intermission, a sweaty Mike Portnoy stood next to his drumkit and said, “Well, that was our first song. How’s that for an epic? A 75-minute opening song!”
8. Up, by Peter Gabriel, 2002
What can I say? Peter Gabriel is the man! “Up” was his last full album (he contributed several tracks to “Big Blue Ball” (2008) and his latest album, “Scratch My Back” (2010) is a covers album). At over 50 years of age, he shows the rest of his former bandmates in Genesis how it’s still done. He is always “progressive” in that every track is inventive and pushes the boundaries (yet with the incredible knack of keeping us with him with an accessibility that is uncanny). How I wish he would have joined the rest of Genesis for the reunion tour in 2007!
7. The Incident, by Porcupine Tree, 2009
After the disappointing “Fear of a Blank Planet” (2007), I was wondering if I was “Porcupine Treed Out” after having consumed so much of Steven Wilson’s music over the past decade. Therefore, when “The Incident” came out, I had lower expectations than for that previous album, and the first couple listens had me confused as to what Wilson was up to here. Some songs were only a minute and a half long! As soon as I was getting into it, the song would switch to the next track. Then I figured it out: The entire CD is meant to be a single composition, with musical themes repeating here and there throughout the album. Some tracks were indeed set-ups for the next track, and several tracks were meant to be considered together as a single entity. Oh! I get it! And, with that, I was amazed. “The Incident” is evidence of Steven Wilson’s musical genius. And it is also evidence that the iTunes era of downloading single tracks is sad, because this album is meant to be heard in its entirety.
6. Testimony, by Neal Morse, 2003
The first album for Morse after leaving the band he founded, Spock’s Beard, for a more clearly Christian slant, this is a very personal and amazing album, telling the story of his struggle to seek fame and fortune as a musician and getting caught up in the party lifestyle of California rock music. All the while, Jesus was reaching out to him (“Sleeping Jesus”) while he was still feeling the influence of “The Prince of the Power of the Air.” He met his future wife, a devout Christian, and he was moved by the love of Christ found in the small country church near Nashville that she attended. This is an epic, 2-CD testimony of Neal Morse’s conversion, with elements of Kansas, Yes, Genesis, Gentle Giant, Dream Theater, The Beatles, and classical music. This CD has a special place in my heart, I listened to it a lot while recovering from the aortic dissection that nearly took my life in 2006., it was the soundtrack to my worship of God in sparing my life. I told Neal this at an after-concert meet and greet, and he was visibly moved by my testimony about his “Testimony.”
5. Milliontown, by Frost*, 2006
Frost* debuted with one of the most impressive CDs of the decade. In 2004, Jem Godfrey, a multi-talented musician who has made a name for himself in the UK as producer of many top radio hits, decided to try his hand at Progressive Rock. Milliontown is an extremely listenable symphonic progressive rock album. Melodies are the centerpiece, with progressive rock changes in time signatures. For fans of classic Genesis, a must have. There are also shades of latter-day Peter Gabriel.
4. One, by Neal Morse, 2004
This is the quintessential Neal Morse album. “One” tells the sweeping tale of the original union of humanity with God, followed by disastrous separation, but then culminated in a glorious reunion This album features not only the tremendous artistic diversity of Neal Morse (vocals, keys, guitar), but also the superior drumming of Mike Portnoy (formerly of Dream Theater) and the legendary guitar skills of Phil Keaggy (who also sings a duet with Morse on one song). Think of the best of prog legends Pink Floyd, old-school Genesis, Kansas, and Yes, and add in the best of Rich Mullins or Michael W. Smith from the Christian sector, then add the kind of rock-opera feel that Trans-Siberian Orchestra has accomplished with their Christmas albums… and on top of all that, add the pop-music sensibilities and sophistication of The Beatles at their creative height and you are just scratching the surface of what you’ll be hearing. Read my full review here.
3. In Absentia, by Porcupine Tree, 2002
With three albums in the top 20, the band of the decade was Porcupine Tree. They have single-handedly redefined the genre with a mix of ambient atmospheres, catchy melodies and hooks, complex time signatures, aggressive guitar and percussion, and story-telling lyrics. “In Absentia” is PT’s most approachable CD. The opening songs (“Blackest Eyes” and “Trains”) epitomize the PT sound with hints of Radiohead, while “Gravity Eyelids” harkens back to their days when they were called the new Pink Floyd.
2. The Human Equation, by Ayreon, 2004
Along with his side projects Star One, Guilt Machine, Ambeon, and Stream of Passion, Arjen Anthony Lucassen’s primary musical project has been Ayreon, a series of CDs dating back to 1995 with The Final Experiment and ending with 2008’s 01011001. All the albums in the Ayreon catalog have been incredible and worthy of their own place on “Top Albums” lists, but The Human Equation is simply one of the finest albums ever produced. It tells the story of a man in a coma after a car crash, interacting with his emotions after the betrayal he experienced when he caught his best friend kissing his wife. What makes this particular album unique is that each of his emotions is anthropomorphized and given a specific vocalist – eleven vocalists are employed, singing the parts of “Reason,” “Love,” “Pride,” “Agony,” etc. The 2-CD concept album never gets old or tedious because of the eclectic styles that Lucassen is capable of creating. At times, the music reminds you of something from Pink Floyd, then it sounds like Genesis, and then it sounds like a wonderful mix of Yes with Dream Theater. The artists that Lucassen recruited to sing and perform on this album are all amazing, and the his production genius is amazing.
1. Snow, by Spock’s Beard, 2002
Neal Morse’s final album at the helm of the band he founded is a rock opera masterpiece. It’s too bad that he left the band after it’s release; I would loved to have seen this album performed live. Morse went on to a fantastic solo career, while the band went forward with uneven results (understandable, since Neal Morse was the creative force behind the band for its first six albums). Morse is also one of the masterminds behind the Prog supergroup Transatlantic. “Snow” is the story of a young man whose called this nickname due to his pale complexion. Snow leaves his small town for New York, where he discovers his supernatural powers to feel the pain of the people he encounters and the ability to heal them. This is a very moving album – the Christian allegory is real but it is subtle. The music moves effortlessly from the influence of Genesis to Yes to The Beatles to Gentle Giant to Kansas. There are wonderful ballads and hard-edged rockers. There are excursions into magnificent instrumentals that showcase the band's excellence as players (especially Morse, who provides vocals and plays piano and acoustic guitar). This 2-CD concept album moved Morse into the upper-echelon of composers; with this album he developed the ability to create a complex yet cohesive album with repeated themes to tie things together and catchy melodies and hooks for individual songs that are worthy of radio airplay.
Special Honorable Mention:
The new 5.1 Surround Sound and Stereo Masters of the Genesis Catalog (2007). I have long been a fan of this band, especially of their music from when Peter Gabriel was the lead singer (1969-1975) up through 1982 when Phil Collins was lead singer but they remained a leading progressive rock innovator. Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, and Steve Hackett are far too often overlooked in favor of the bigger-than-life frontmen, but they are the heart and soul of this music. These CDs are not just re-mixes, but entire re-masters. To hear old albums like “Nursery Cryme” (1971) brought to new life is just amazing. Wow. Just wow.